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Apple, Google and a Deal That Controls the Internet

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OAKLAND, Calif. — When Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai, the chief executives of Apple and Google, were photographed eating dinner together in 2017 at an upscale Vietnamese restaurant called Tamarine, the picture set off a tabloid-worthy frenzy about the relationship between the two most powerful companies in Silicon Valley.

As the two men sipped red wine at a window table inside the restaurant in Palo Alto, their companies were in tense negotiations to renew one of the most lucrative business deals in history: an agreement to feature Google’s search engine as the preselected choice on Apple’s iPhone and other devices. The updated deal was worth billions of dollars to both companies and cemented their status at the top of the tech industry’s pecking order.

Now, the partnership is in jeopardy. Last Tuesday, the Justice Department filed a landmark lawsuit against Google — the U.S. government’s biggest antitrust case in two decades — and homed in on the alliance as a prime example of what prosecutors say are the company’s illegal tactics to protect its monopoly and choke off competition in web search.

The scrutiny of the pact, which was first inked 15 years ago and has rarely been discussed by either company, has highlighted the special relationship between Silicon Valley’s two most valuable companies — an unlikely union of rivals that regulators say is unfairly preventing smaller companies from flourishing.

“We have this sort of strange term in Silicon Valley: co-optation,” said Bruce Sewell, Apple’s general counsel from 2009 to 2017. “You have brutal competition, but at the same time, you have necessary cooperation.”

Apple and Google are joined at the hip even though Mr. Cook has said internet advertising, Google’s bread and butter, engages in “surveillance” of consumers and even though Steve Jobs, Apple’s co-founder, once promised “thermonuclear war” on his Silicon Valley neighbor when he learned it was working on a rival to the iPhone.

Apple and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, worth more than $3 trillion combined, do compete on plenty of fronts, like smartphones, digital maps and laptops. But they also know how to make nice when it suits their interests. And few deals have been nicer to both sides of the table than the iPhone search deal.

Nearly half of Google’s search traffic now comes from Apple devices, according to the Justice Department, and the prospect of losing the Apple deal has been described as a “code red” scenario inside the company. When iPhone users search on Google, they see the search ads that drive Google’s business. They can also find their way to other Google products, like YouTube.

A former Google executive, who asked not to be identified because he was not permitted to talk about the deal, said the prospect of losing Apple’s traffic was “terrifying” to the company.

The Justice Department, which is asking for a court injunction preventing Google from entering into deals like the one it made with Apple, argues that the arrangement has unfairly helped make Google, which handles 92 percent of the world’s internet searches, the center of consumers’ online lives.

Online businesses like Yelp and Expedia, as well as companies ranging from noodle shops to news organizations, often complain that Google’s search domination enables it to charge advertising fees when people simply look up their names, as well as to steer consumers toward its own products, like Google Maps. Microsoft, which had its own antitrust battle two decades ago, has told British regulators that if it were the default option on iPhones and iPads, it would make more advertising money for every search on its rival search engine, Bing.

What’s more, competitors like DuckDuckGo, a small search engine that sells itself as a privacy-focused alternative to Google, could never match Google’s tab with Apple.

Apple now receives an estimated $8 billion to $12 billion in annual payments — up from $1 billion a year in 2014 — in exchange for building Google’s search engine into its products. It is probably the single biggest payment that Google makes to anyone and accounts for 14 to 21 percent of Apple’s annual profits. That’s not money Apple would be eager to walk away from.

In fact, Mr. Cook and Mr. Pichai met again in 2018 to discuss how they could increase revenue from search. After the meeting, a senior Apple employee wrote to a Google counterpart that “our vision is that we work as if we are one company,” according to the Justice Department’s complaint.

A forced breakup could mean the loss of easy money to Apple. But it would be a more significant threat to Google, which would have no obvious way to replace the lost traffic. It could also push Apple to acquire or build its own search engine. Within Google, people believe that Apple is one of the few companies in the world that could offer a formidable alternative, according to one former executive. Google has also worried that without the agreement, Apple could make it more difficult for iPhone users to get to the Google search engine.

A spokesman for Apple declined to comment on the partnership, while a Google spokesman pointed to a blog post in which the company defended the relationship.

Even though its bill with Apple keeps going up, Google has said again and again that it dominates internet search because consumers prefer it, not because it is buying customers. The company argues that the Justice Department is painting an incomplete picture; its partnership with Apple, it says, is no different than Coca-Cola paying a supermarket for prominent shelf space.

Other search engines like Microsoft’s Bing also have revenue-sharing agreements with Apple to appear as secondary search options on iPhones, Google says in its defense. It adds that Apple allows people to change their default search engine from Google — though few probably do because people typically don’t tinker with such settings and many prefer Google anyway.

Apple has rarely, if ever, publicly acknowledged its deal with Google, and according to Bernstein Research, has mentioned its so-called licensing revenue in an earnings call for the first time this year.

According to a former senior executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality contracts, Apple’s leaders have made the same calculation about Google as much of the general public: The utility of its search engine is worth the cost of its invasive practices.

“Their search engine is the best,” Mr. Cook said when asked by Axios in late 2018 why he partnered with a company he also implicitly criticized. He added that Apple had also created ways to blunt Google’s collection of data, such as a private-browsing mode on Apple’s internet browser.

The deal is not limited to searches in Apple’s Safari browser; it extends to virtually all searches done on Apple devices, including with Apple’s virtual assistant, Siri, and on Google’s iPhone app and Chrome browser.

The relationship between the companies has swung from friendly to contentious to today’s “co-optation.” In the early years of Google, the company’s co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, saw Mr. Jobs as a mentor, and they would take long walks with him to discuss the future of technology.

In 2005, Apple and Google inked what at the time seemed like a modest deal: Google would be the default search engine on Apple’s Safari browser on Mac computers.

Quickly, Mr. Cook, then still a deputy to Mr. Jobs, saw the arrangement’s lucrative potential, according to another former senior Apple executive who asked not to be named. Google’s payments were pure profit, and all Apple had to do was feature a search engine its users already wanted.

Apple expanded the deal for its big upcoming product: the iPhone. When Mr. Jobs unveiled the iPhone in 2007, he invited Eric Schmidt, Google’s then chief executive, to join him onstage for the first of Apple’s many famous iPhone events.

“If we just sort of merged the two companies, we could just call them AppleGoo,” joked Mr. Schmidt, who was also on Apple’s board of directors. With Google search on the iPhone, he added, “you can actually merge without merging.”

Then the relationship soured. Google had quietly been developing a competitor to the iPhone: smartphone software called Android that any phone maker could use. Mr. Jobs was furious. In 2010, Apple sued a phone maker that used Android. “I’m going to destroy Android,” Mr. Jobs told his biographer, Walter Isaacson. “I will spend my last dying breath if I need to.”

A year later, Apple introduced Siri. Instead of Google underpinning the virtual assistant, it was Microsoft’s Bing.

Yet the companies’ partnership on iPhones continued — too lucrative for either side to blow it up. Apple had arranged the deal to require periodic renegotiations, according to a former senior executive, and each time, it extracted more money from Google.

“You have to be able to maintain those relationships and not burn a bridge,” said Mr. Sewell, Apple’s former general counsel, who declined to discuss specifics of the deal. “At the same time, when you’re negotiating on behalf of your company and you’re trying to get the best deal, then, you know, the gloves come off.”

Around 2017, the deal was up for renewal. Google was facing a squeeze, with clicks on its mobile ads not growing fast enough. Apple was not satisfied with Bing’s performance for Siri. And Mr. Cook had just announced that Apple aimed to double its services revenue to $50 billion by 2020, an ambitious goal that would be possible only with Google’s payments.

By the fall of 2017, Apple announced that Google was now helping Siri answer questions, and Google disclosed that its payments for search traffic had jumped. The company offered an anodyne explanation to part of the reason it was suddenly paying some unnamed company hundreds of millions of dollars more: “changes in partner agreements.”

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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